There are a couple of guys in North Hollywood who are hoping that the nation likes-really, really likes-Conan O’Brien.
Mr. O’Brien is the host of this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards broadcast on NBC this Saturday.
The success of this year’s Emmy show could be a big factor in whether the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, led by Chairman Bryce Zabel and President Todd Leavitt, can significantly ratchet up the license fee for the broadcast.
At an estimated $7 million in license and production fees, the revenues drawn by the Emmys pale in comparison to the $50 million that ABC is said to pay each year for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Academy Awards. CBS is estimated by sources to be paying $25 million for exclusive rights to the annual Grammy Awards.
With the current licensing deal on the Emmy show set to expire Oct. 14, both Mr. Zabel and Mr. Leavitt said ATAS is “obligated” to continue negotiating the revolving wheel arrangement with the Big 4 networks that it has had for the past decade. Mr. Leavitt also revealed that he will be joined at the negotiating table by a noted tough guy on the Academy’s side: Hollywood entertainment attorney Kenny Ziffren.
But there’s a caveat: Mr. Leavitt said that if the networks don’t step up on the pricing, ATAS is “not obligated to continue the wheel arrangement,” thus possibly licensing the Emmy Awards show on an exclusive basis to the highest network bidder.
“One of the things I’ve said on the subject of license fee negotiations, in consultation with our board of governors, [is] that we need to get a fairer deal” out of the networks, Mr. Zabel said. “With the extra money that would come in from such a license fee agreement, we would be able to dream bigger dreams. Whatever rewards we get, the beauty of the structure here, between the Academy and its [educational] foundation, is that [the license fee revenue] all comes back home to the benefit of the industry. If we get a tremendous license fee … whoever’s paying it … it’s going to come back to the benefit of everyone working in television.”
Mr. Leavitt, 51, who was formally named president of ATAS last week (replacing Jim Chabin), previously served as the head of production for Canada-based Alliance Television Group (now Alliance Atlantis) and NBC Productions. After leaving Alliance he spent four years as the owner of the TV and film finance company Tulip Media Ltd. It is his extensive business affairs, negotiating and financing background that ATAS hopes to use in its broadcast rights negotiations with the networks.
New judging system
The license fee revenue from the Emmy Awards telecast is estimated to account for more than half of ATAS’s annual revenue. The nonprofit organization has been putting more of that money toward improving the Emmy nomination, screening and voting process. A major thrust of that has been to work with the networks and studios to distribute videotapes of nominated episodes to ATAS members who have volunteered to be on the Emmy judging panels.
Before three years ago, when the new judging system was put in place, much smaller panels of ATAS judges would have to travel to selected hotels for screenings. A longtime topic of debate under the old judging system was the narrow pool of largely Big 3 broadcast network series in consideration; complaints largely emanated from executives at the emerging broadcast and cable networks.
Mr. Zabel suggested that in particular the wider base of ATAS members participating in the new judging process has opened the Emmy Awards drama category to such rising newcomers as HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” Fox’s “24” and CBS’s “CSI.” Among the comedy nominees, HBO’s freshman comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” joins NBC’s top-rated “Friends,” the latter of which has never won a series or acting Emmy statuette in its eight seasons on the air.
“As Bryce has stated, this is a totally open playing field,” Mr. Leavitt added. “The show, we trust, is going to be great because we have so many first-timers [from the broadcast and cable networks] getting consideration-even though [HBO’s] `The Sopranos’ didn’t have new episodes last season and is not up for consideration.”
“It used to be that as few as 20 people sitting in a hotel room for a weekend could look at a single episode of each show and make a decision,” Mr. Zabel said. “Now more than 20 times as many people vote, because they vote at home. So now you’ve got more like 400 or 600 people voting … to where it has become a much broader cross-section of the membership,” which totals 11,000 people from 27 different peer groups within the TV industry.
“For that reason, I’ll make a prediction that on the morning of Sept. 23 [the day after the presentation, when national ratings are released by Nielsen], the Emmy Awards will have the best ratings they’ve had in the last 10 years,” Mr. Zabel added. “That’s because we have the goods this year, from greater fan interest from TV viewers-and we’re not going to be going up against the seventh game of the World Series. This is the most exciting Emmy race in a long time.”
Emmy category issues
Still, the networks and TV critics have raised some red flags in the past over how the Academy has historically placed “The Simpsons” in the outstanding animated series category when many industry watchers say the excellence of its satire should place it in consideration with other live-action comedy series. CBS, last year’s Emmy telecaster, also briefly complained that the nonfiction reality series category, in which “Survivor” was under consideration, should have been placed in the Primetime Emmy Awards show, but ATAS instead opted to keep the category within in its nonprime-time Creative Arts Emmy Awards show.
“The trends that we’ve had to grapple with include shows like `Survivor,’ [ABC’s] `Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’ and now [Fox’s] `American Idol’-shows like that and [MTV’s] `The Osbournes,”’ Mr. Zabel said. “Where do these shows go? Are they reality shows? Are they game shows? In fact, as these things morph and hybrid out, they don’t fit so neatly.”
“At the end of the day it’s excellence which is our mission,” Mr. Leavitt interjected. “Because we’ve got a 500-channel universe now, people are as likely to watch `The Osbournes’ on MTV or `The Shield’ on FX, which, in fact, are not available to all television homes. But they’re excellent, so the Academy has some real issues that have got to be faced in understanding and balancing that.”
Another tough balancing act for the new administration at ATAS is to find ways to reach out to its East Coast counterparts in the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which is now headed by President Peter Price. After ATAS split off from NATAS in 1976, the latter organization took over administration of the Emmy Awards for news, daytime, sports and public service programming. Over the following quarter-century, when NATAS was headed by the late John Cannon (who passed away in June 2001), the gulf between the East and West coast organizations widened.
The recent changes in leadership at both organizations has Mr. Zabel and Mr. Price hopeful of building on the newly founded ATAS-NATAS Alliance Committee to explore new joint initiatives and maybe even incite starry-eyed talk of a potential reunification.
Nevertheless, the vast differences between the two organizations’ constituencies may preclude a new union, but with Dennis Swanson also named as NATAS’s new chairman last spring, Mr. Zabel sees more opportunities to do cooperative ventures. In fact, Mr. Price also noted that ATAS members are now participating with NATAS members on joint judging panels for the Daytime Emmy Awards.
“What we have are two organizations with four new leaders, none of which can remember why it was good to be two separate organizations,” Mr. Zabel said. “ It doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons why they are, but all of us are looking at it more without the emotions of the past. I’m not prepared to merge ATAS and NATAS myself and I don’t think the board of governors is prepared to as
k us to do that. But if it did, it wouldn’t be me that figured that out. It would be Todd here who’ll figure out for us how to make that happen.”
Since ATAS is what Mr. Zabel describes as a “peer-based” organization made up largely of West Coast creatives, Mr. Price also noted that NATAS’s wider “chapter-based” constituency of TV journalists and sports and daytime programmers presents “unique challenges” to any possible re-integration of the two organizations.
“We are not talking [about] merging as much as we are talking about doing things together, like some awards show functions, education foundation work and internship programs-things of that sort,” Mr. Price said. “Bryce is someone I talk to about once a month and is very open to things, and I’m looking forward to getting to know Todd. Right now we’re just talking about establishing an agenda and having increased dialogue on having a greater collaboration on a number of fronts moving forward.”
Curbing the runaways
Mr. Zabel and Mr. Leavitt also hope to gain a broad coalition with NATAS and all parts of the TV industry in the United States to put together a broad-based initiative to highlight the economic cost of runaway TV production to Canada and other countries. Interestingly, Mr. Leavitt, who oversaw Alliance Television’s Canadian production of TV series content originating from U.S. markets, brings a unique insider’s perspective to how various economic incentives, grants and favorable exchange rates from the Canadian government has wreaked havoc on production in the Hollywood community.
“I was running a company [Alliance] for three years which existed essentially because of the largesse of the Canadian government, taking full advantage of what Canada could do that the industry here could not do,” Mr. Leavitt said.
“The bottom line is there was $8 billion last year in runaway production,” added Mr. Leavitt, who will join Tribune Entertainment President Dick Askin (as head of ATAS’s Runaway Production Committee) in taking the issue to legislators Washington and Sacramento, Calif., in the coming year.
Mr. Zabel, 48, served as writer-creator of the former dramas “Kay O’Brien” (for CBS), “The Mantis” (Fox), “E.N.G.” (Lifetime) and “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven” (syndication), only to see all four series end up shooting in Canada.
“I always tell people the way I feel about `E.N.G.’ is that it’s like you bring your baby home from the hospital, a beautiful kid,” said Mr. Zabel, who is currently pitching a pair of dramas for the 2003-04 season-a vampire-based series called “Black River Falls” for CBS and a military intelligence drama called “Hearts and Minds” for HBO. “And then there’s a knock at the door and there’s these very nicely dressed people in lovely Italian suits who are saying, `We’re here to take the child now.’
“So there is a sense of disenfranchisement that doesn’t just go with the creators, it goes with the people who are the below-the-line people, too, who realize other people are working on projects that if it weren’t for the economic reality would also be here in the States. And they would be feeding their families here. We have a number of members who are extraordinarily hurt by this, some peer groups far more than others, and we’re just hoping we can be an honest broker for them in pushing the dialogue and legislative changes to work in their favor.”